Thursday, December 5, 2013

Be-Smurching Lindbergh

At the local cineplex last week, among the trailers preceding second Hunger Games film was one for the remake of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.

[Digression: Yes, it bothers me too that a “trailer” can precede anything. 100 years ago the trailers did, in fact, trail, but theater owners learned that audiences wouldn’t stay around for them; so, by 1920 they were being run before the feature. Nonetheless, we have stuck stubbornly to the original word even though it has been inappropriate for 93 years. A similar stubborn adherence to tradition keeps sock sizes different from shoe sizes and the number of packaged hot dogs different from the number of packaged hot dog buns. (Sausages of any kind traditionally were sold by butchers in multiples of six or twelve, and rolls by bakers in multiples of eight or sixteen.)]

Anyway, Walter Mitty is a mild company drone who, in his own active imagination, is a swashbuckling hero. While the trailer ran, I wondered if Walter’s fantasies ever were invaded (as mine sometimes are) by unwanted mental images of his heroism ending in ruin or scandal. James Thurber, author of the short story on which the movie is based, might have had a similar thought, for he wrote another short story, The Greatest Man in the World, about a very flawed hero. Thurber, The New Yorker’s star essayist/cartoonist/short-story-writer in the 1930s, is not as much read these days as he once was, but he should be. His well-mannered satire and self-deprecating humor are refreshing in an age rife with shameless self-promotion. In the short story The Greatest Man in the World, Jack Smurch becomes a hero by making a solo flight around the world. Then, as now, Americans liked their heroes squeaky clean, so Smurch causes consternation. Smurch is so disreputable that his own mother, when interviewed after he took off from New York, says, “Ah, the hell with him. I hope he drowns.”

Lindbergh, of course, was the squeaky clean hero with whom Smurch was meant to contrast. Charles Lindbergh, contrary to common belief, was not the first to cross the Atlantic nonstop in a heavier-than-air aircraft. Two Brits named Jack Alcott and Arthur Brown did this in 1919 in a Vickers Vimy. Taking the shortest route, they flew from Newfoundland to Ireland, a distance of 1890 miles (3042km); they landed badly in a bog, but walked away safely. For some reason the feat didn’t attract much attention. Eyes instead were on the New York to Paris route, a distance of 3628 miles (5839km); numerous cash prizes were offered to the first aircrew to make it, notably a $25,000 prize ($325,000 in today’s dollars) offered by hotelier Raymond Orteig. By 1927, aircraft and engine technology was (just barely) up to the task, and in May of that year the 25-year-old Lindbergh pulled it off.

Lindbergh was not just unsullied, he was weirdly so. In 1927 he had no discernible vices and never even had been on a date. For the next decade he was wildly popular. Yet, he, too, had a fall. The reason was politics. When I was young (Charles died in 1974), I heard numerous people of the WW2 generation cuss him out as “that [expletive of choice] fascist.” Lindbergh was not a fascist. He was, however, an isolationist and a pacifist. A majority of Americans also were those things as late as 1941, but Lindbergh, unlike nearly everyone else, didn’t change his mind after December 7. Occasional anti-Semitic remarks in his past, never pretty, suddenly looked even uglier. (Example: “A few Jews add strength and character to a country. Too many create chaos.”) Nowadays, memories of his disrepute largely have faded, but there is a reason (besides shyness) he was so nearly invisible in the 29 years of his life after the war.

Strangely, we are still often surprised when heroes turn out to be mere humans. From the reaction to Lance Armstrong’s revelations, for example, you’d think he had betrayed each and every member of the public personally. More than a few supporters were genuinely surprised when Anthony Weiner (briefly a favorite in the race for mayor of NYC) had yet another sexting scandal. Some folks apparently really care whether or not Beyoncé lip-synced the national anthem.

I suppose it is human nature to mythologize great achievers. Fair enough, but perhaps we’d be less disappointed with them when they err if we regarded them from the start as the ancient Greeks did their mythological heroes: often forgetful, vengeful, violent or downright crazy. According to Kevin Dutton in his book The Wisdom of Psychopaths, after all, heroics are quite commonly part of the behavior of psychopaths. Heroics aren’t exclusive to them by any means, but even the best of us have our off moments. It may be the ultimate unfairness to expect otherwise.

No More Heroes by Slash


  1. I remember reading "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" in high school and I loved it. I can't tell you how often I used my imagination to get out of the dull drudgery of life, and how often I played the hero, got the girl and save the world in those day dreams. So yeah, I could connect with Mitty.

    And as you say, there are times where even the day dream would turn on you and things would go badly. But heck even in those tragic moments, I'd have dignity. :)

    This movie has been in production for years. I remember hearing about Jim Carrey wanting to adapt it back when his star was at its zenith (late 90sI think). I remember there was talk of a british version with Simeon Pegg at one point too.

    You're right, I've never heard anything bad about Lindbergh. And only recently did I hear about the two gents who beat him to the punch but didn't get much credit.

    These days, I'm not sure folks appreciate the tragic fall as much as they used to. Maybe too much dower stuff going on in their lives. As for Lance... well I wasn't offended by his fall. More like smirking. He and his devout fans always seemed to have a holier than thou attitude about his achievements and skill (it could just be me, I admit it). So to see him and his fans collapse just made me grin. I'm a jerk that way. :)

    1. Recommended addition to the bookshelf for anyone who doesn’t already own a copy: “The Thurber Carnival” has been in print continuously for half a century and has some great selections from the full range of his work.

      I didn’t know the remake had been kicking around for so long. I gather that it owes very little to the 1947 version with Danny Kaye, which I haven’t seen in years.

      Perhaps part of the problem with modern falls is that so many modern falls have an element of farce (say, John Edwards or Amanda Bynes) even if they are not amusing at all to the people involved.

      Schadenfreude is not entirely alien to my nature either.